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Luther stands

Culture | HOLLYWOOD: A new biopic about the great Reformer is captivating in a way that many Christian-themed movies are not

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

AS THE CREDITS ROLLED, THERE was an awkward period of complete silence, followed by an excited outburst. "It's fascinating! I knew nothing about Martin Luther, and now I definitely want to know more," said a "buyer" representing a very well-known and well-respected Hollywood studio. His enthusiastic response came after a private screening of Luther, the biopic of the great Reformer that opens in 338 cities this weekend.

The buyer was willing to pitch the film to his bosses, under one condition: "All the Christ stuff has got to go."

Distribution by a major studio was a sure-fire way to generate ticket sales, but the team behind Luther wouldn't budge, executive producer Dennis Clauss told WORLD. They made sacrifices and compromises each step of the way in the film's production, but no one was going to tear out the core of Luther.

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The two-hour epic (rated PG-13 for disturbing images of violence; it also contains a small amount of Luther's characteristically coarse language) is ambitious in scope, particularly for an independently financed religious movie. The project was born out of a desire to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Aid Association for Lutherans. But not too far into the development process, the team decided that the script had enough solid material for a major motion picture. Luther would leave the relative security of the Christian arts ghetto and compete at the local multiplex.

The goal was to balance what Mr. Clauss called the triptych of "historical accuracy, theological integrity, and entertainment appeal." At the same time, he sought to avoid the two faults that he thinks alienate most people from "Christian" entertainment: sub-par technical achievement and an evangelistic message that is jarringly disconnected from the rest of the story ("altar call time-outs," as he described them).

What's the final result? Mr. Clauss doesn't look at Luther through rose-colored glasses: "I'm not expecting Oscar nominations.... I know everything that's wrong with it, and think some things could have been done better." His hope is that the film is still solidly entertaining and represents its hero well. And on these counts, he has reason to be pleased.

The highlights of Martin Luther's life, from his spiritual struggles to his battle with and eventual break from the Roman Catholic Church, are vividly wrought here. A seasoned cast, which includes Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick the Wise, Alfred Molina as Brother John Tetzel, and the wonderful Bruno Ganz as Father Johann von Staupitz, does well with the material they're provided.

Joseph Fiennes portrays Luther and is a mixed blessing in the part. He's suitably intense and speaks with conviction, but his temperament and even appearance possess a certain femininity that clashes with the earthiness and vigor of the historic Luther.

Luther hits most of its historical marks. A few liberties are taken, and some characters and events are shuffled in and out so quickly that they barely register, including the posting of the 95 Theses and Luther's relationships with Katharina von Bora and Philip Melanchthon. But many key moments, such as the Diet of Worms ("Here I stand. I can do no other."), ring true.

The production values are mostly strong. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert Fraisse gives the film a glossy look and utilizes some inventive camera work not usually found in bargain-basement religious productions. But, at least in the print screened by WORLD, the dialogue dubbing could have used more work.

What's most remarkable about Luther, though, is the weight of its theological content and the strength of its message-the "Christ stuff" is fully intact. Mr. Clauss told WORLD that despite the need to compromise during production, he would not allow three scenes to be cut: two in which Luther addresses his congregation in Wittenberg and one in which he agonizes in his monk's cell, crying out in despair for a merciful God. These scenes are some of the most powerful in the film. Christ is central in all three, not only as the agent of that mercy, but also as the sacrificial recipient of God's wrath, justly directed at man's sin.

The overall product is captivating in a way that most paint-by-numbers Christian-themed movies are not. The film's ability to entertain while dealing seriously (if not comprehensively) with Luther's life and thought is commendable.

Mr. Clauss said he isn't expecting huge profits from Luther. Rather, the film's much more subjective goal is to be a catalyst for deep, soul-searching thought. That's a lofty ambition for a film that will play next to movies starring David Spade and pro wrestler The Rock. But if people come out to see it, they're likely to leave the theater engaged in just that.

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